Exiled Eritreans campaign for freedom of journalists

On World Press Freedom Day, journalists critical of the government remain imprisoned without charge after 14 years.

Sweden protest
A campaign has been launched in Sweden to get journalists freed in Eritrea after 14 years [Fatma Naib/Al Jazeera]

Stockholm, Sweden – In the middle of the Swedish capital’s main square, Sergels Torg, 12 chairs are lined up next to each other – four occupied by people dressed in black T-shirts with duct tape covering their mouths. The remaining eight are empty.

The square, a frequent protest venue set against the backdrop of a fountain, is a busy spot with shoppers and tourists strolling along as commuters rush by.

The chairs in the middle of the square represent a dark story.

This symbolic installation has been set up for World Press Freedom Day on Sunday to express solidarity with journalists held in Eritrean jails thousands of kilometres away.

A large banner reads: “Our silence kills! Only four out of the 12 journalists who were imprisoned in 2001 are still alive today. Demand their release at onedayseyoum.com.”

“I started the campaign because it was my responsibility,” 18-year-old high school student Vanessa Berhe told Al Jazeera.

Vanessa Berhe is campaigning in Sweden for the release of journalists imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001 [Vanessa Berhe]
Vanessa Berhe is campaigning in Sweden for the release of journalists imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001 [Vanessa Berhe]

“My uncle was imprisoned fighting for the right of the children of his country to debate, speak, demonstrate, vote and be a part of a democratic society,” said Berhe, who was born in Sweden to Eritrean parents.

Following a 30-year armed struggle for independence from Ethiopian rule, Eritrean rebels defeated the Ethiopian army in 1991 and the country gained its independence.

The new Eritrean government, headed by Isaias Afewerki, the country’s only president since independence, began imposing restrictions on the media and political activity.

Independent ownership of radio or television media was banned, and in 2001 all independent newspapers and print media were shut down. At that time, the government locked up any journalist or politician who called for democracy and reform.

The last accredited international correspondent was expelled from the country in 2007 and state-run outlets remain the sole news providers.

While the Eritrean constitution allows for multiple political parties, the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice remains the only one. Elections scheduled for 2001, the first since the country’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991, have yet to take place.

Threat of journalism

One of the jailed journalists is award-winning Seyoum Tsehaye, 54. Two years ago Berhe, his niece, decided to campaign for the release of Tsehaye and the other journalists.

Tsehaye was a photojournalist during the armed campaign against Ethiopia that lasted 30 years.

During the time of his arrest, he had been planning to hold a photography exhibition in France, showcasing the armed struggle.

Seyoum Tsehaye has been in jail since 2001 [Vanessa Berhe]
Seyoum Tsehaye has been in jail since 2001 [Vanessa Berhe]

“My uncle and his colleagues were imprisoned because they were considered a threat against the Eritrean government. Their critical, democratic and progressive approach was weakening the government’s position in the country,” Berhe explained.

“If they had not been imprisoned, they could have pursuaded the Eritrean population about their democratic ideas.” 

Tsehaye went on a hunger strike in 2002, and his family hasn’t been able to contact him since.

An official from Eritrea’s President’s Office addressed the concerns over the journalists’ imprisonment in an email to Al Jazeera.

“The detention of journalists in 2001 had nothing to do with press freedom,” said Yemane Ghebremeskel.  “Some journalist[s] were not jailed because they held or expressed some opinion which does not conform with official government policy. But if and when journalists are involved with others in acts of sedition, treason or other major offenses that impinge on National Security, governments take appropriate measures.” 

Eritrea is often referred to as the “North Korea of Africa”.

According to a list of the 10 most censored countries released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last week, Eritrea is the most censored in the world, followed by North Korea.

The list is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from repressive laws and imprisonment, to restrictions on internet access and usage.

Berhe, who visited Eritrea in 2008, recalled how it was unthinkable for her to say anything critical about the government while in the country. 

“I have never felt so trapped,” she said.

Prisoner of conscience

One of her uncle’s colleagues, Dawit Isaak, an Eritrean-Swedish journalist, has been held in Eritrean prisons without trial since 2001.

Journalists, human rights defenders and politicians in Sweden have campaigned for his release relentlessly for more than a decade.

Isaak is the only EU citizen to be held for such a long period of time as a prisoner of conscience.

Every Friday a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #FreeDawit takes place where fellow journalists and human rights defenders tweet about him.

Swedish newspaper Expressen keeps an online counter of the number of hours, minutes and seconds Dawit has been imprisoned in Eritrea without trial.

His brother Esayas, who moved to Sweden in the 1980s, is angry at the silence of the Eritrean community.

“There are almost 40,000 Eritreans here, more and more are arriving here each month. They, too, need to break their silence, fear, and selfishness,” he said.

Esayas campaigns tirelessly for his brother’s release, and for this he has paid a high price.

“I was hoping my parents would outlive the regime but they didn’t. Both died, I couldn’t go back to bury them and neither did my brother because he was in prison.”

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has championed the cause of jailed journalist Dawit Isaak [Kalle Alse'n] 
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has championed the cause of jailed journalist Dawit Isaak [Kalle Alse’n] 

In addition to Tsehaye and Isaak, the detained journalists include Said Abdulkadir, Yosuf Mohamed Ali, Amanuel Asrat, Temesgen Gebreyesus, Mattewos Habteab, Dawit Habtemichael, Medhanie Haile, Fessahaye Yohannes, Saleh al-Jezaeri, and Hamid Mohamed Said.

Exile and isolation

Aside from the media, there are also restrictions on modern communications technology as well. 

Eritrean journalists who chose to go into exile abroad rather than risk arrest try to provide their countrymen with access to independent online news and radio broadcasts. But it remains difficult to ascertain how many people they are able to reach because of state control and limitations on internet access inside Eritrea.

All mobile communications are channelled through EriTel, the only telecommunication company in Eritrea.

Although internet service is available, it runs only through slow dial-up connections, and fewer than one percent of the population are connected, according to UN International Telecommunication Union figures.

According to CPJ, Eritrea scrapped plans in 2011 to provide mobile internet for its citizens, further limiting the possibility of access to independent information.

Eritrea also has the lowest figure globally of mobile phone users, with just 5.6 percent of the population owning handsets.

For people such as Berhe, online access is not a problem and she uses this freedom to make her voice heard from Sweden to the rest of the world, including Eritrea.

“Our belief is that when the voices of democracy have been silenced, we need to use ours,” she said of the campaign she is now running.

“I want to tell the global journalism community that the imprisoned journalists fought for the very principles that your careers depend on. With democratic rights also comes a responsibility to help those people who are still fighting for what we take for granted,” said Berhe. 

“To the Eritrean government I say: When will it be enough?”

Source: Al Jazeera